A 1998 Gruesome Hate Crime Horrified A Small Texas Town

The 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. appeared to be a hit-and-run at first glance, but it didn’t take investigators long to realize they were dealing with something far more sinister.

James Byrd, Jr., pictured here holding a baby, was murdered by John William King and two other white supremacists in a gruesome hate crime on June 6, 1998.

The 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. appeared to be a hit-and-run at first glance, but it didn’t take investigators long to realize they were dealing with something far more sinister.

Photo by: Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from "People Magazine Investigates")

Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from "People Magazine Investigates")

A man and his grandson out for a Sunday morning walk on June 7, 1998, were horrified to find a body lying on the side of rural Huff Creek Road in Jasper, Texas. The pair immediately ran to call 911, and Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles was dispatched to the scene to assist his deputies. The initial theory was that the man had been the victim of a hit and run, so the highway patrol was also summoned to the scene.

As Rowles drew closer to the scene, he saw what looked like skid marks along the road and assumed the case would soon be solved, but it only took one look at the body to realize they were dealing with something much worse than a hit and run.

The body was that of a Black man, but his head and a shoulder were missing, and the skin around his ankles had been torn off, revealing bone.

As police surveyed the scene, dispatchers received another frantic 911 call — just a mile down Huff Creek Road, a woman found a human head and shoulder lying in the ditch in front of her home. At the second scene, the authorities found the head and shoulder that matched the body as well as other human tissue.

The search for evidence led Rowles to walk along the road between the two scenes. What he had initially believed was a skid mark, he realized was actually blood on the pavement. The enormity of the crime was staggering when it dawned on him — somebody had dragged that man behind a vehicle for quite some time.

The search for evidence sent authorities past the woman’s house in the other direction. As they followed more blood, they found a shirt, dentures, keys, a shoe, and other articles of clothing on the road. Eventually, the blood trail left the pavement and turned down a secluded logging road.

In a clearing at the end of the logging road, authorities found clear signs of a struggle and several more key pieces of evidence. There were half a dozen beer cans and a scattering of cigarette butts. There was a screwdriver in the dirt with a name — ”Berry” — etched into the handle. A flip-top lighter that bore a strange emblem and the word “possum” on it was also recovered.

In all, the crime scene spanned three miles of the rural road.

The location of the body appeared to be a symbol. The man had been left in front of a historically Black church. It seemed the killer was trying to send a sinister message.

See how police solved the crime on People Magazine Investigates: “Evil Comes to Jasper” on ID on July 18 at 9/8c. See more episodes on discovery+.

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